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Three things we learned about Obsidian’s new RPG, The Outer Worlds

It’s like Fallout and Mass Effect had a baby, but without the romance

Obsidian Entertainment/Private Division
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Obsidian Entertainment is responsible for some extraordinary video games. Legendary titles such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords and Fallout: New Vegas easily come to mind, but also popular homegrown franchises like Pillars of Eternity and smaller titles like 2016’s Tyranny. The Outer Worlds, announced last night during the Video Game Awards, is a blend of old gameplay mechanics and a new, science fiction setting.

It also feels like a balm for fans of massively single-player worlds — just like the ones made famous by Obsidian’s one-time collaborator Bethesda — fans still reeling from the rocky launch of Fallout 76.

Earlier this week we sat down with the team behind the ambitious project, which includes Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, co-creators of the original Fallout games. Here are three things about what The Outer Worlds is, and what it isn’t.

A new RPG, rooted in the old school

Obsidian described The Outer Worlds as an alternate history future that transports the gilded age into outer space. A collection of mega-corporations have bought and paid for a new colony in a star system far from humanity’s home world. Within it are two habitable worlds, and when the game begins terraforming operations are already well underway.

As the game opens, players will find themselves on board a massive starship, freshly thawed after a much longer than expected journey.

“You are on the second colony ship,” said Leonard Boyarsky, Obsidian’s co-game director on the project. “It was going there and it mysteriously got knocked out of it’s faster-than-light travel, so it took way longer to get there than it should. About 70 years in all.”

In the fiction of The Outer Worlds, humans can’t survive hibernating for more than a decade. Somehow, an enterprising deep space scientist has found a way to keep you alive. Your quest, should you choose to accept it, is to help them find the resources they need to unfreeze the rest of the remaining settlers.

“You are not forced to work with him,” Boyarsky said. “You can betray him the first chance you get to the government, and work on their side. You can effectively play the game any way you choose. You can be the hero. You can be anti-hero. You can be a full-on mercenary. You can be psychopathic killer.”

There will be a modicum of character customization options, Boyarsky said, but players should expect a more old-school approach. For instance, you’ll rarely see your character on screen outside the inventory menus. They won’t have even have a voice. That will leave room, he said, for the developers to spend their time and treasure crafting a complex narrative adventure. Early gameplay shows branching dialogue paths with plenty of nuance, a composite of memory mechanics from games like TellTale’s The Walking Dead and stats-based rolls common in isometric RPGs.

A party of NPCs

Once they dig into the game, players will quickly be given access to their own starship, complete with a roguish crew. Just as in the Pillars of Eternity series, these non-player characters will have an opinion about what’s going on in the world.

“I liken it more to like an evolution from the things you saw in Fallout: New Vegas,” Boyarsky said, “where the characters are much more integrated. [...] I don’t want to necessarily make comparisons between the two, but they’re both from the same DNA. Let’s put it that way.”

“We’re also pushing the idea of integrating your companions into a lot more of the events that happen along the way,” said Charlie Staples, The Outer Worlds’ lead designer. “In our conversations, companions can interject. Their skills add onto your skills. If my intimidate skill isn’t high enough, but then Felix is here with me, we can push through this conversation and get a different option because he’s there with me, so it’s a lot more about them influencing things along the way.”

Of course, ever since the Mass Effect series, once you launch players into space and embed them with a group of NPCs they begin to get certain ... urges. Both Boyarsky and Staples said that, sadly, romance is not an option that they’re considering.

“We really wanted to focus on you role-playing your character,” Boyarsky said, “developing the unique personalities of your companions as fully fleshed out people.”

Romance, he said, has a tendency to funnel gameplay and temper the decisions players make in the game in unusual ways. For that reason, they opted to leave it out.

“We had to pick what we were going to put our time into,” Boyarsky said. “Other people have explored the romance angle in different ways. We felt like sometimes it kind of waters down your roleplaying for your character because it turns into this mini game of how do I seduce this companion or that companion. So it was just one of the things we felt wasn’t really what we wanted to focus our time on. [...] We’re really trying to be focused on a specific experience so that we can polish that experience and give players the best version of that experience that we can.”

The Outer Worlds - Auntie Cleo’s ad
A teaser image shown on the Obsidian website in the weeks leading up to the game’s reveal.
Obsidian Entertainment

Guns blazing

Early teases for the game took the form of in-fiction advertisements from megacorporations like Auntie Cleo’s and Spacer’s Choice. The final game will feature 10 different brands, each with their own line of items and weapons for players to choose from. Wear and tear will be modeled, and luxury brands will last longer. Certain brands will also be more moddable than others, although the team didn’t go into much detail about what that means in practice.

What is clear, however, is that combat looks an awful lot like Bethesda’s modern Fallout games, complete with a VATS-like pausable sequence and zoomed-in vanity shots for particularly graphic kills.

Party members will also participate in combat. The team says you’ll be able to give them simple commands and standing orders, but their individual personalities will play a big role in how they fight. Additionally, your social skills will also play a role in how battles turn out.

“We have the dialogue skills which are used in conversation,” Staples said, “but also wanted to make sure that those added influence in combat as well.

Obsidian Entertainment/Private Division

“We have three dialogue skills consisting of lie, intimidate, and persuade. They also have a role in combat. [Perhaps] you kill a creature and that intimidates the rest of the creatures, and they all flee. We wanted to make sure that players who choose dialogue aren’t just focused solely on talking, but that they have advantages in combat and the other gameplay we have as well.”

One particularly innovative system that the team is working on is how the game will offer players permanent negative attributes. When something terrible happens, say a grievous wound delivered by a particular animal or an accidental fall, players will be given a choice to sidestep the immediate consequence in favor taking a flaw instead.

“It’s a typical Obsidian game,” Staples said, “so it has a lot of choice and consequence. A lot of building your own character and playing the way that you want to play.”

“Along the way,” he continued, “the game watches how you’re doing and what happens to the player and we call it a flaw. Say that I’ve been fighting a lot of robots and here’s an opportunity of where we say, ‘You can take a flaw and have robo-phobia where you’re scared of robots and all your stats will go down when you’re near robots. If you accept that, you can take a perk right now.’

“We found that it’s a way to dynamically change the player character, to make them more of an interesting hero as they’re playing through the game. It’s a more reactive play style and how they’re doing things.”

The Outer Worlds is expected to release some time in 2019 for PlayStation 4, PC, and Xbox One. The title will be published by Private Division, a new independent label from Take-Two Interactive Software.